The NFL has issued a major call to action in response to disproportionately high injury rates on special teams, league officials said this week. Rule changes and new training requirements are among possible solutions that NFL medical staff and competition committee members will be discussing in the coming weeks.
Concussions in all games continued their downward trend from recent years, the league reported Monday as part of its annual health and safety meeting with reporters covering Super Bowl LVI. But data has shown concussions occur with higher frequency on punts and kickoffs despite a series of recent rule changes designed to make both safer.
According to chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills, one in six concussions in the NFL have occurred this season on special teams, along with 30% of ACL tears and 29% of lower extremity muscle injuries. Those numbers require “our immediate attention,” Sills said, because special teams make up just 17 percent of plays in a typical NFL game.
Punts have overtaken kickoffs as the most injurious play in football, he added, but both have unacceptable injury rates. In one particularly notable play this season, Kylin Hill of the Green Bay Packers tore an ACL and Jonathan Ward of the Arizona Cardinals suffered a concussion when they collided on a kickoff return during week 8.
The NFL redesigned the kickoff in 2018, banning most double-team blocks, eliminating running starts from cover men, and limiting the number of blockers who can line up near the returner. The NFL also eliminated most blind blocks in 2019, a rule change it hoped would impact punts. But injuries on punts haven’t really gone down, and they’ve been successful on kickoffs in part because nearly 60% of all kickoffs aren’t returned for touchdowns.
Jeff Miller, executive vice president of communications, public affairs and policy for the NFL, said the league will not just consider rule changes this spring and clarified that there remains a strong preference against the elimination of any part of the special teams.
“You have to ask yourself if special teams players are training for the kinds of moves and experiences that they have on special teams,” Miller said. “If they’re not, why not? And if they need to do more, then they should. And that’s before you get to the rules. Even then, when you get to the rules, and the competition committee has touched on this many times over the past few years, the contribution of health and safety to potential rule changes and how you would model a rule that would actually keep your foot in the game – everything “keeping the excitement of the game and finding a way to mitigate some of the risk of injury – is a tall order. But it’s something we’re going to be spending a lot of time working on. These numbers prove it.” “
The NFL issued a similar call to action against concussions at all levels in 2018 and has since seen a steady decline. In total, there were 187 concussions in practices and games (including preseason) in 2021, according to data released Monday. That number was higher than 2020 (172), but that number came after the NFL canceled its preseason due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2015-2017 three-year average was 266.3. There were 214 in 2018 and 224 in 2019.
Over the past year, the NFL has stepped up its efforts to count not only every concussion, but also every case of head impact, or every time the helmet hits something, whether it’s another helmet, the body of an opponent/teammate or the ground. It now has the ability to reliably track impact through AI video analysis, and it will begin distributing the resulting data to teams and players over the coming year.
“I would go so far as to say we want to remove avoidable head contact from play,” Sills said. “There will always be instances where players hit the ground or collide, but to the extent that avoidable head contact can be removed, we want to do that. … This will involve teaching better techniques, training and practices, probably some elements of rule changes, use of Guardian Cap [an extra pad affixed on a helmet]. It will be a very comprehensive effort and it is our next big frontier when it comes to the neurological health of our players.
“We are happy with the number of concussions, but we think it’s not the full picture and we really want to aggressively reduce and work to eliminate preventable head contact.”
According to Miller, efforts will be particularly focused on offensive and defensive linemen, who have the highest head impact rate among positions. Repeated subconcussive head impact is thought to be the primary cause of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
In other NFL health and safety news:
* Sills said he considers the NFL’s 2021 COVID-19 response “a success,” especially after pivoting in mid-December in response to the omicron variant. A total of 1,224 players and staff tested positive between Dec. 12 and Jan. 8, but the numbers dropped dramatically once the playoffs began. Sills attributed the drop to the high number of infections in December, as well as “significant self-regulation” by players and coaches during the most important weeks of the NFL season. Although the league has stopped testing asymptomatic players, Sills said the drop “isn’t because we’re not looking.” He added: “We’re still screening everyone for symptoms, and we’re still testing, but in a targeted way.”
* The league ended the year with 95% of its players and nearly 100% of staff vaccinated. As a result, only one “member of the NFL family” was hospitalized during the season, Sills said. The league does not identify results for specific individuals, but Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Dakota Dozier told ESPN he spent three nights at a local hospital due to respiratory issues after being tested positive in November.
* An initial analysis of the total number of injuries in the NFL’s first 17-game season showed no difference from previous seasons, Miller said, largely because adding a game of regular season was the elimination of a preseason game. There were concerns that fatigue-related injuries would increase in the final week of the season, but Miller said the numbers were stable. “That’s what we assumed,” he said, “and it’s only one season, but it’s something we looked at.”
* Injuries to the hamstrings, quadriceps and abductor muscles increased “significantly,” Sills said, mostly due to spikes during the early parts of training camp. The league is conducting studies into connecting various cleats and playing surfaces, and it donated $4 million to the University of Wisconsin last summer to study ways to minimize hamstring injuries in particular. .